Fennel is one of those ingredients that seems intimidating. From its bulbous, rooty bottom to its thick branches and fluffy fronds on top, where do you even start? But once you master the vegetable, its subtle licorice flavor can be used in loads of different ways.
American Beech in Greenport is using fennel from KK’s the Farm in a scallop dish that layers arugula, strawberries, red quinoa, and sherry and finishes off with shaved fennel on top. Chef Taylor May thinks fennel can be transformed using different cooking techniques.
“Whether it’s the bulb, the stalk or the flower, the subtle licorice taste goes with so many things,” she said. “Techniques such as pickling, sautéing and sous viding are just a few of the ways to maximize the flavors of this perennial herb.”
One of May’s preferred ways to maximize flavor is to braise the fennel.
“It’s one of my favorite side dishes to almost any protein imaginable,” she said.
Cut one bulb of fennel into eight pieces and sear it in a hot pan with butter. Once it takes on some color, sprinkle sugar and salt on top and add enough sambuca (an anise liqueur) to cover the bottom of the pan. Cook until the alcohol smell has dissipated. Then add vegetable stock and cook for an additional 15 to 20 minutes until fork tender.
“You can also add fennel to a charcoal grill while cooking something like fish or chicken to give it the subtle taste and aroma of savory licorice,” May said. “The possibilities with fennel are endless.”
Meanwhile, at the Black Llama, the cocktail space at American Beech, fennel is being used in a more drinkable way. This bar uses culinary techniques to showcase different ingredients.
“My personal favorite way to use fennel is sous viding it to make a bright flavorful simple syrup,” May said. “This is great in cocktails or mocktails and pairs perfectly with gin, aquavit or vodka.”
To make it, she mixes equal parts sugar, water, and fennel in an airtight plastic bag and cooks the mixture at 145 degrees using a sous vide machine. Strain it, cool it and it’s ready to be used.
But if you’re just looking to keep it simple, May has a totally non-fussy way to incorporate fennel into a meal — as a garnish.
“I learned that when fennel is overgrown, a beautiful yellow flower blooms with a sweet black licorice taste,” she said. “This part of the plant makes a decorative and flavorful finishing touch to any fennel dish.”